The Chicago Blackhawks will once again be leaning against the "Bulin Wall," just not as hard this time around.
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman pulled off a stunning move on Day 1 of NHL free agency on Friday without committing big bucks to a big star. After taking care of the team's own free agent situation, Bowman's signing of goalie Nikolai Khabibulin sent shock waves throughout the league.
ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers reported that the 'Hawks brought back the 40-year-old net minder for his second tour of duty with Chicago. Khabibulin signed a one-year deal for a fraction of what he made when he manned the net for the 'Hawks from 2005 to 2009.
After the 2004-05 lockout, former 'Hawks GM Dale Tallon signed Khabibulin to a four-year, $27 million contract. CapGeek.com is listing his current one-year contract at a $2 million cap hit for 2013-14, as it consists of $1.7 million base salary that is coupled with performance bonuses worth up to $300,000.
In his first stint with the 'Hawks, Khabibulin was expected to carry Chicago to playoff success. This time around, he merely has to back up Corey Crawford.
Ray Emery, the team's backup for the past two seasons, elected to sign with Philadelphia on Friday, in hopes of playing a larger role next season. Bowman decided not to tender anoffer to either Emery or Carter Hutton, who subsequently signed with Nashville, this offseason. So right now, the goalie situation in Chicago consists of Crawford, Khabibulin and Antti Raanta, the 24-year-old Finnish goalie that was signed earlier this spring.
There is no doubt that Crawford will be starting the bulk of next season's games, and the addition of Khabibulin allows the Blackhawks to ease Raanta into North American hockey, if necessary. It also prevents having to go to prospects like Mac Carruth or Kent Simpson if injuries occur.
Khabibulin's price seems a little steep, though, especially considering Emery's huge performance this past season for just over a million dollars. But much like Emery, Khabibulin should benefit greatly from Chicago's defensive prowess. This will be a nice change for the 40-year-old after he saw a lot of action in the Oilers net to the tune of over 31 shots a game.
Khabibulin battled injury this season and played in just 12 games. He was 4-6-1 for Edmonton, sporting a 2.54 goals against average and a .923 save percentage.
Back and groin injuries hampered Khabibulin over the course of his four-year stretch in Edmonton, and it would seem that Emery's health concerns might pale in comparison to a goalie who missed 30 percent of the Oilers' games while with the team.
High expectations plagued Khabibulin the last time he played for the Blackhawks. At a reduced rate, though, can he now live up to the terms of his deal? If Chicago limits its demands for Khabibulin to spelling Crawford in limited starts, that may happen.
Khabibulin's signing caught me off guard. From a talent perspective, he is a solid acquisition, but my concerns lie in his ability to stay out of the trainer's room—and history is certainly not on Khabibulin's side.
A healthy Khabibulin starting 25 games for Chicago could be a recipe for a more than solid net tandem. The cost is a bit more than Emery, who only went 17-1 and helped bring the Jennings Trophy to the 'Hawks this past season. However, if this was any other name, it would hardly merit a squawk.
The news carries added impact with the fact that this is a goalie that was practically run out of town a few years ago and couldn't seem to do enough to earn his $6.75 cap hit. Khabibulin is now four years removed from being that guy, though, and perhaps things will be different for him as a backup.
His role, which I'll assume was explained very clearly to him by Bowman, won't be that of a savior in the crease. The 'Hawks are on the superior end of the NHL pecking order, and the money won't be hanging around his neck albatross-style any longer either.
This can work, but Khabibulin just has to stay healthy. At age 40, that's going to be the storyline for the four-time NHL All-Star. Welcome back, Nikolai; just remember to stretch.